Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a 30-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment, Brandon's carefully managed world spirals out of control.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) spotlit actor Michael Fassbender’s steely gaze and diminishing proportions as his character used his body as a means to achieve a form of freedom. Four years on, the pair revisits the themes of appetite and decay with this exploration of sex addiction, Shame.
This time around, Fassbender’s body is the symbol of unchecked impulse; the upwardly mobile Manhattan executive ('Brandon’) is a slave to his compulsions, and McQueen makes this plain early on in scenes that establish Brandon’s familiarity with prostitutes, and his 'NSFW’ download history on the office PC.
For Brandon, a peak-hour subway carriage is interchangeable with a boozy cocktail bar in the wee small hours, for the way he mentally undresses a pretty commuter; his gaze lingers too long – and longer still – til her initial sense of flattery sours under the brute objectification of his loaded stare. The silent sequence underscores the depths of Brandon’s pathology. In this and many other aspects the film shares much with American Psycho in its study of predators and their 'deviant’ M.O. Though the game plan differs crucially, Brandon’s explicit description of what he’d do to a potential hook-up could be a direct lift from the Patrick Bateman playbook.
The city of New York, and its bars and bathrooms, feed and facilitate Brandon’s addictions – among them the Standard Hotel, whose floor-to-ceiling windows enjoy notoriety for offering reciprocal benefits for voyeurs and exhibitionists alike.
A series of ignored voicemails herald the arrival of his fragile sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who’s seeking refuge from her latest failed relationship. She upends Brandon’s routine, exposes his online habits, and generally undermines his veneer of self-control. Her halting rendition of 'New York, New York’, sung as part of her cabaret act at a piano bar, brings him to the brink of tears in front of his sleazy, boorish boss.
Backstory, such as it is, comes by way of a voicemail left by a weeping Sissy: 'We’re not bad people," she insists. 'We just come from a bad place". All that’s clear is that, geographically, she’s referring to New Jersey, but beyond that, literalist McQueen feels no need to examine the 'causes’ of the siblings’ respective dysfunctions. The elephant in the room might suggest that Brandon’s attempt to enforce boundaries in the relationship is a belated one (it’s no accident that the needy 'bottle-blonde’ playing Chic’s 'I Want Your Love’ on his stereo could pass for a former conquest returned to stake a claim to his attention, and to his shower.) McQueen’s general resistance to exposition is to be admired, but sits at odds with the sniffly voicemail; it feels like a wedged-in hint to 'character’ that we neither asked for nor require.
McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan use dialogue sparingly – the credits merely cite their screenplay as 'inspiration’ – in the lead-up to a pivotal, single-take sparring scene between Brandon and Sissy, which sets up the final movement. McQueen used a similar technique in Hunger to preface the inevitable conclusion of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands’ defiance.
The film’s ending scenes speak to the inherent difficulties faced by any truthful study of a 'condition’; how to end the exercise without overt moralising, or 'curing’ the patient? I’m not convinced McQueen’s approach breaks from any established conventions, which means that Shame, for all of its intelligence, curiosity and excellent performances, misses its opportunity to 'go there’.
For its cinema release, the censors have deemed it appropriate to brand McQueen’s largely wordless observation of Brandon’s insatiable impulses with an R-rating for its frank depictions of the physical matter of sex addiction. Fassbender and his co-stars are frequently naked on screen, but McQueen keeps the titillation quotient near zero. To the director and his chiselled lead actor’s credit, Shame is the least sexy film about sex since Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.
Watch 'Shame' at SBS on Demand